Charcuterie refers to all sorts of cured, preserved and occasionally fermented meats. Historically, farmers slaughtered pigs and cattle in the fall. They wanted to use and preserve every part of the animals they had invested months, if not years, in fattening up. They ground small scraps for sausage (placed in casings made from the cleaned intestines), they simmered the head for head cheese, they salted and cured the fat for cooking and they even saved the blood to make into sausages such as black pudding and boudin.
Although charcuterie exists throughout the world, the term is French, as is Frederic Tandy. He grew up in Limoges, France, and many of these dishes and preparations were part of his life growing up. When Tandy moved to Canada, he worked in various kitchens throughout Nova Scotia. When he decided to strike out on his own, he went back to those roots, making pâtés and quiches to sell at farmers’ markets. “It was a mixed response,” he says, “especially to the pâtés.” Tandy often had to explain what charcuterie was and how he makes it, and give out samples.
By the time he opened up Ratinaud’s storefront he had steady customers and word-of-mouth following him up to Gottingen Street. Nowadays, Ratinaud supplies various eateries throughout the city with his charcuterie: Obladee Wine Bar, The Nook, Lion & Bright and others.
The recent rise of charcuterie on North American menus is another manifestation of people becoming interested in sustainable gastronomy, including nose-to-tail eating. No need to throw out those pig cheeks if you can make guanciale out of them. Chefs are scouring to find as many ways as possible of playing within the realm charcuterie. “We went from people not knowing it at all, to appreciating it,” says Tandy.
Gillian Wesley has noticed the change. She’s one of the people behind Local Traveller, a website dedicated to food, travel, and much more. Wesley often samples charcuterie on her travels. “It’s nice to have the option to have meat that isn’t overwhelming—something you can snack on, take your time with, and share,” she says.
Wesley finds the sharing factor a big part of the appeal. Her partner, Drew Moore, spent time in France as a child and so they are happy to see more varieties of charcuterie (often house-smoked) on menus. But she’s not a recklessly adventurous eater—she tends to veer on the “don’t tell me until I eat it” side of things. “I often don’t ask what is on a charcuterie board,” she says. “Perhaps if I knew in advance it was head cheese I wouldn’t eat it, but I probably would because we try to limit our meat consumption and believe in using the whole animal when possible.”
Ludocvic Eveno is chef at Agricola Street Brasserie. Eveno and his staff make the offerings in-house. “It’s a good base of cooking,” he says. Eveno grew up around all sorts of charcuterie, in Brittany and Alsace. At the Brasserie, he and his colleagues make various pâtés, smoked salmon, rillettes (meat preserved in it salt and its own fat), pastrami and sausages of all sorts. Eveno believes that charcuterie and good cooking go hand in hand. “It’s part of the concept where where we want to try to make everything in house, and charcuterie is part of many of the cooking processes here,” he explains For example, the bacon they make goes into everything from cassoulets to vegetable dishes.
In Eveno’s eyes, charcuterie is more than tradition. “It’s about craftsmanship,” he says. “Let’s say you work on a basic recipe. Then you can improve on it and you can change it. A little bit more garlic, or parsley, what will change is up to you. You can become creative.”
That creativity also demands a certain amount of dedication. Although Eveno has worked with charcutiers abroad, he recognizes that there are parameters to keep into consideration when it comes to making these beautifully seasoned foods. “You can make a sausage that everyone says is good, but you want it to be better,” he says. “That doesn’t come quickly: you learn why things happen, why the fat separates, how to mix it so that proteins bind together, those are things you learn. It’s a question of respect.”
But no matter how you slice it, it’s hard to call something that has been done for hundreds of years a trend. “Where I am from it’s not a trend,” says Tandy. And for his customers, no matter whether they grew up on these dishes, or are only just learning of them them for the first time, the appreciation for something well made is the same. “You get the older crowd for who it strikes an old memory for them, or a trip they had,” he says. “And then there is the younger crowd who has discovered it and noticed the difference. It’s nice to see the appreciation of people. By doing something different, something well, people appreciate that.”